The Picture of Dorian Gray
Those of you following this blog in 2016 know about my year-long experiment in living (actually reading) fictionally. This is off to a grand start as I’ve finished the first book on my reading list: Oscar Wilde’s seminal (and only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While I could spend the majority of this essay expounding on the literary shattering of the 19th century social consciousness that this incredible piece of work affected, this operation is more geared toward taking away writing skills from each book I read.
So regarding the novel itself I’ll keep it brief. This was absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read. Considered a “philosophical novel” it is all of that plus much more; a daring look at aestheticism in the age of Victorian prudishness, it also contains one of the more remarkable examples of early science fiction writing as a play on the Faust legend of selling one’s soul to the devil. Except in this case Wilde does the story one better in that Dorian Gray’s soul has been transferred to a portrait, which keeps track of every malady and malfeasance he accomplishes while his own face retains its youthful luster. For those who have yet to read this marvelous work I won’t give away too much of the plot other than to say it will keep you hooked straight through to the end.
Now I want to move on to the takeaways from writing I gathered from reading this amazing book. But first a quick aside: I’ve written before about how rather unnecessary all those “how to write” lists and columns from authors have become to me. Instead of looking at those, I have maintained that the best way to learn from an author better than yourself is to simply read their work. That should teach you everything you need to know about how to improve. And in this case, that comes through in spades.
First: The adage of “show, don’t tell,” and its purported usefulness. This mantra is spouted to almost every writer attempting to make a go of it, and for the most part it is valuable, if pithy advice. Yet Wilde almost entirely ignores this in his novel. While the literature is a pure joy to engage with, and is a valuable critique of his own society at a time when that was frowned upon, just as interesting to me as a writer is what he doesn’t say. We are right there with Dorian Gray as he finds out the horrible secret of his portrait, but not necessarily when he goes on to a life of debauchery and hedonism outside of a full chapter on his interests in tapestries, jewels, and other expensive tastes. In a later scene in the book, Gray blackmails a scientist friend of his into performing a horrific act that will eliminate some evidence. These two are mentioned as having been good friends until Gray’s sullen reputation causes them to never see each other again. Not mentioned is the actual incident, or what Gray uses to blackmail his friend. Long stretches of time pass with barely a mention, and you have to pay close attention to see what point of the story has been reached in each chapter. To me, this would appear to go against the “show, don’t tell” rule, but in fact is an excellent example of how to elude things like this in the service of telling a story. For up until reading this book, in my mind the most sacred of golden calves in the writing world was description: make sure your reader knows what’s going on by showing him or her, and making sure they get the full measure of your scenes and characters. Wilde turns that on its head by consciously avoiding a lot of the headier parts of the story in favor of letting his audience consider what Gray is up to during the intervening chapters. While this probably comes as little surprise to more advanced literary readers, to me it was a quiet revolution in my style of writing, and one I suspect will be attached for some time.
Second: The use of the novel to speak volumes about one’s society. As is pretty well known, English society didn’t care much for Mr. Wilde or his supposed improprieties. Despite being one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century, he was cast aside by his peers for daring to criticize his contemporary culture and its vagaries and norms. Seeing this in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to recognize just how important it is to use art in this regard. Those of you who have known me for a while understand my obsession with politics and the situation our lovely world finds itself in these days. In fact, the bizarre qualities of our modern life (escape of accountability by politicians, rampant corruption in the financial sector, devastating poverty for the vast majority) are things I hope to target in my third novel. So it’s very motivating to read such an incredible analysis of Wilde’s own day in his text, just to see how well to do it. This is seen no better than in Lord Henry Wotton, friend of Dorian Gray and a supposedly bad influence on him who leads him to a lifestyle of ruin. And how does he accomplish this? By urging his young companion to engage in art with all of his senses, and to live for the moment in any way he can. This type of lifestyle was unheard of in 19th century England at the time and caused mass opprobrium against Wilde that could culminate in him being put on trial for various obscenities a few years later. Sadly, as is too often the case with many great literary authors, Wilde obtained a more fair scrutiny after his death. But the legacy of his work reflected a sea change in the notion of what a novel, and art in general, could and should be.
These are the two biggest lessons I’ve learned from reading this marvelous work, but you out there may draw different conclusions. That’s why I would strongly urge anyone to pick up this book if you haven’t read it yet. And I would highly recommend it for those of you trying to figure out your own writing voice, as it’s a great example of how to write exceedingly well. (And if you’re looking for further recommendations, I posted my own set of favorite fiction books last year.)
Next up on the docket for my year of living fictionally: a change in the lineup, as my wife really wanted to read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea together (much like we read To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago - and yes, we are married dorks). It’s a relatively slim volume I’m ashamed to admit having never read, and shouldn’t knock me too far off course from the list I created earlier.
And of course, those of you out there are always free to send me your own recommendations. I’ve received a few great ideas so far, but can always use more. Now it’s on to the next book!
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John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.